How is World Literature Pedagogy for the Public?

By May Hawas

Politicising World Literature: Egypt between Pedagogy and the Public grew out of two sets of convictions, each with their own contradictions. The first is the belief in the importance of public university education even as it is being viciously pressured worldwide. The second is the belief in the importance of literary study even as its professional purpose seems questionable in light of obvious underemployment in the literary field.

Experientially, the book also grew out of studying and teaching in the public university system in Egypt, and was spurred by later experiences in Europe and the US. And it was clinched by the wonder that, on the one hand, there was a group of language-cultures that could be studied comparatively and called comparative literature, and, on the other hand, there was a separate group of language-cultures that could be studied comparatively but were usually called postcolonial. Enter World Literature as a solution.

Many teachers in the humanities have moments when they ask themselves about what vocational skills exactly their students are getting. In certain academic contexts, after all, you can’t say: NGOs are the way forward. In certain countries, for obvious reasons, NGOs aren’t. In certain contexts you can’t say: have you thought of journalism? In certain countries, for obvious reasons, that doesn’t work either. In certain contexts you can’t say: we’re primarily training you to be researchers. If academics are struggling to find jobs to teach literature in English, it’s not “other” nationalities the global market is looking for (including in the Third World itself), however discriminatory the assumption is that such academics are a priori less credible than those with the right skin colour or those with the right passport. In a time of global underemployment in the humanities, then, and in contexts of both authoritarianism and high unemployment, specialised professions for literary study seem side possibilities at best. While such questions are inherent to the discipline anywhere, the degree to which the field seems alienated from the community for its students is certainly exacerbated from one area (and institution) to another.

Outside of Euro-American countries, what was the point of bringing up new generations to appreciate Euro-American –and only Euro-American– literature without denigrating into either some racist civilizational mission or some generalist teachery discourse of enhancing critical thinking? Alternatively, what was the point of continuously repeating the binary oppositions of postcolonialism to students whose immediate fears – from unemployment to social freedoms – were not strictly related to colonialism (even if they might be related to other forms of international influence)?

Meanwhile as a student and writer in European contexts, on a disciplinary level, there continuously appeared the obligation to find a rationale for comparing non-European and European cultures. Postcolonialism was the most accessible choice, and, of course, it is vital to keep this conversation in the public. Still, there was something jarring that primarily European languages seemed to be inherently comparable, that there had to be a reason to compare any two non-adjacent, non-philological language-cultures, and that when a framework was embraced, it had to have some relation to fighting violence, rather than an inherent belief in world comparability.

So why does a community need world literature? Why does anyone need literary study at all? Such questions have urged this book forward. Many of them are questions for which I still don’t have an answer.

What the book does accumulate, however, is a set of assumptions: that a free or low-cost public education system is a more societally-important State and community model than the private university because it allows literary study to have a stronger public function. That national literature should not be taught without some accompanying comparative framework, however nominal. That all the languages of the world are of equal comparative potential, and belong in the same disciplinary home of literary study. Finally, that the popularity of departments of national literatures rather than comparative literature in the post-colonial world has actually had a negative impact on literary study in these areas where bilingualism and multilingualism are specific points of strength.

Politicising World Literature: Egypt, Between Pedagogy and the Public is a study of the worldly imaginaries of the novel genre. Drawing on World Literature debates, the book suggests a way that non-Western literature (here, from or about Egypt as a case in point) can be compared to Western literature alongside postcolonial paradigms. At the back of the study are also concerns about the role of teaching literature itself when this literature has no ostensible philological relation to the national language. And at the forefront are the recent critical debates of World Literature. The book takes for its corpus a series of novels and travelogues that deal with, travel across, and come from Egypt, Czech Republic, Britain, Zimbabwe, India, Italy, as well as the premodern Islamicate routes across Sicily, Morocco, the Levant, and Central Asia.

The word Egypt in the title is, then, somewhat misleading. It is very much a book about Egypt, but it is equally about basic questions of corpus, pedagogy and research objectives that most literary scholars and academics ask themselves. The difference is that the book doesn’t shy away from acknowledging one’s centre in a literary corpus, which everyone has, as a student, scholar, reader, and teacher. Instead, the book reformulates one of the major questions in World Literature when organising literary material, from asking where the epistemological centre for reading the “world” is, into how to navigate out from this centre. The booksuggests that one way of doing so would be to work one’s way out from the centre through a series of comparisons in which the centre alwaysholds, but in which the compared variable always changes. So the ensuing contrast isn’t between “self” and “other”, but between self and endless third variables, in other words: between centre and world.

Otherwise, there is no point to reiterating ideas about colonial violence when the once-colonised natives continue to feel repressed without feeding into this discussion equally exigent issues of self-accountability and agency. There is also something fundamentally questionable about touting globalisation discourses of open markets for literatures at a time of closed or closing borders for people, not least to the same students who are well aware that their futures are less hopeful than the celebratory positivistic flourishes of the humanities suggest.

Taught anywhere, World Literature that engages with some of these concerns can have several pedagogical functions. It can act as an eye-opener to those who have no assurances of their “central” place in the world by showing them how their cultures have long intertwined and interacted with others, or it can help generate public, locally-derived political idioms of plurality. World Literature can highlight political affiliations and networks beyond the East/West framework, while not glossing over the violence that these frameworks have entailed. Finally, World Literature can allow us a more open and holistic discussion of literature by creating new comparisons between third variables rather than generating a series of oppositions. Our individual centres have to hold, but the world within and outside our centre needs to be allowed equal voice.

*Acknowledgments: I am grateful to Georges Khalil and Moritz Buchner for the invitation to write about this book.

May Hawas, Politicising World Literature: Egypt between Pedagogy and the Public, Abingdon (Routledge) 2019.

May Hawas is Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the American University in Cairo, and was a EUME Fellow in 2016. She is the author of The Diaries of Waguih Ghali: An Egyptian in the Swinging Sixties (2016 & 2017), The Routledge Companion to World Literature and World History (2018), a special issue of What is World Literature – of Arabic? (with Theo D’haen, Journal of World Literature 2.3), and, most recently, Politicising World Literature: Egypt, Between Pedagogy and the Public (2019). Her forthcoming book project is about citizenship and literature in the Mediterranean.

Citation: May Hawas, How is World Literature Pedagogy for the Public?, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 20.06.2019,

Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien is a research organization that promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. The Forum provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. In cooperation with universities and research institutions in Berlin and the rest of Germany, it carries out research projects that examine other regions of the world and their relationship to Germany and Europe systematically and with new questions.

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